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When Leila Hassanin of ArabDev first set out to do research on ICTs and environmental sustainability for APC’s GreeningIT project, she was not aware how pressing ICT e-waste was in Egypt. Electronic waste coming from computers, mobile phones, printers and other tech-industry related items has been on the rise in recent years – the problem is, there is no solid data showing the scale of the problem, and without quantifying the problem it can not be officially be considered as a problem and solutions for it can’t be generated. So, how do you solve a problem that doesn’t officially exist?

E-waste – A growing concern

Technology is playing an increasing role in the everyday lives of Egyptians. According to the latest studies, the number of internet users grew from 9.7 million in June 2008 to 13.5 million in June 2009 – an increase of 39.2%.1 The number of mobile phone users has also grown significantly, from 32.7 million users in June 2008 to 48.3 million users in June 2009 — an increase of 47.7%. Today, the number of users is undoubtedly much higher.

But for such a tech-savy country, there isn’t much awareness around the emerging issues related to communications technology and e-waste. “Stakeholders are aware that it is a growing issue and are trying to address it before it becomes too big of a problem to handle” Hassanin told APCNews in an interview. According to her, there are a few main obstacles to moving e-waste policy forward…

Where’s the data?

While stakeholders are aware that e-waste exists as a problem, no one knows the scale of it. As a result, no one knows how to approach the issue. “As there isn’t much quantitative data available, it’s impossible to know the scale of the problem, how to address it, and where to start,” says Hassanin. This means that the problem cannot be presented in a formal way – and if the problem cannot be presented in a formal way, no formal steps can be taken to eradicate the issue. “Everyone sees that this is a problem, but it’s impossible to make any kind of policy initiative issue around this – so the first challenge is to actually quantify the problem,” she says.

At present ICT e-waste is being handled, if at all, by informal solid waste collectors and recyclers. Often components are burned down to extract copper or other precious metals that can be sold, creating a health and environmental hazard. Some components are being reused to upgrade ICT equipment. Egypt has a very prominent mobile phone market and there is certainly demand on the black market for mobile devices, for example. “But there is no data on what items make that cross-over – when does it become obsolete? When can it be reused? What happens to it once it becomes obsolete?” Hassanin asks. Having an idea about what takes place would help formulate policies on ICT-related e-waste and how to manage the problem in a sustainable way.

Hasanin also points out that obsolete items going to the dump aren’t the only problem related to e-waste however – in fact, some items that could be re-used never get to their beneficiaries because of disclosure issues. “Many companies can’t release computers they don’t use anymore for reuse because of privacy concerns. They don’t want to release the information that was on the computer at one point – even though there is software to address this.” It seems that unless there is a more formal stipulation to delete the proprietary data, there is strong reluctance to do so.

Fitting e-waste into existing policies

Unlike other countries studied (like India), ICT e-waste (specifically) is not lumped in with hazardous waste in Egypt, because hazardous waste is targeted specifically towards industries that produce and manufacture commodities, such as refrigerators. computers and mobile phones are not produced in Egypt, only assembled from imported parts , ICT e-waste can not fall under the category of hazardous waste. According to Hassanin though, “it could actually be beneficial for it to be included within hazardous waste as is done for other e-waste categories like fridges and TV sets, because at least then it would “exist” and could be treated as an issue, and some policy could be developed around it”. As it stands, ICT e-waste exists in a no man’s land, and so nothing is being done about it.

In fact, if anything, e-waste is considered consumer waste. The law is more intent on setting rules for production rather than on the management of it once it’s obsolete. As such, it goes to the scrap handlers, or informal recyclers.

This is where creating incentives formalised through policy could make a big difference. For many, there is no incentive to return their used goods anywhere, but with a bit more awareness and creating an official policy, this could change. But again, quantitative data is needed to show policy makers the need for addressing this issue in the first place.

Collaboration is key

As far as actually creating a policy that specifically targets ICT e-waste, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) is unable to do much on its own. While it is an efficient progressive ministry, it does not have the legal capacities or the budget to do so.

The Ministry of Environment however does have the legal power to monitor line ministries and the public sector on environment related issues, and is willing to endorse a policy on ICT e-waste. For this reason, both ministries have teamed up to work towards the needed regulatory framework – provided some quantitative data can be presented. According to Hassanin, the government and other national and regional stakeholders are all aware of this and a quantitative research is in the pipeline so it should only be another year or two before this data is out.However, establishing the framework and the policy itself is one thing — implementing it will be another story.

This article was written for APC’s GreeningIT initiative and is based on the report by Arabdev and the Global Information Society Watch 2010 report for Egypt .

Photo by The-E. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0

Abstract: photo by khowaga1. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0